T-Shirt Talk Update
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T-Shirt Copyright & Trademarks

As a t-shirt enthusiast and online t-shirt retailer I frequently browse the web to see what types of t-shirts are being sold and potentially popular. I am constantly amazed at the shirts with celebrities, corporate parody logos, and popular phrases from various decades. How do you determine if it is legal to sell a particular design on a t-shirt? I wish I had an easy answer to that question but will provide a brief summary and point out some resources to continue the very tricky area of t-shirt copyright and trademarks. This is a huge topic and I will cover it over a few articles but I will start out discussing the basics of copyright and trademark. What most people seem to be interested in when deciding what to put on a t-shirt is “What designs can’t be copyrighted”. The U.S. Copyright Office states that Names, titles, and short phrases or expressions are not subject to copyright protection. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or if it lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.. Related to t-shirt designs, this includes: 1. Names of products or services 2. Names of businesses, organizations, or groups 3. Names of pseudonyms of individuals (including pen name or stage name) 4. Titles of works 5. Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions. So then what does Copyright protection cover? Copyright protection under the copyright code (title 17, section 102, U.S. Code) extends only to “original works of authorship.” So ideas and concepts cannot be protected. HOWEVER, its not quite so simple. We can not forget about our good friend Mr. Trademark. U.S Trademark law states that there are Some brand names, trade names, slogans, and phrases that may have protection relating to unfair competition, or state or federal trademark laws. Federal trademark laws cover trademarks and service marks that identify or distinguish one source of goods or services from another. Trademarks of service marks may include words, phrases, symbols or designs. The Copyright Office and US Patent and Trademark Office are seprate offices and serve different functions.

How do I search for existing trademarks?

You can visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office search page. From this page click search, then on the next page: “New User Form Search (Basic)” and enter your criteria. Using the search example of I Love New York you will see 36 registered trademarks. Here you can view the details of all 36 records. One of the most famous in these results is for I [Love] NY, an image that is commonly seen t-shirts.

Written by T-Shirt Talk


  1. Raoul Moolman · August 3, 2007

    This is a topic I’m currently very interested in.

    I’m in the process of starting a south african based distribution company, the core component, especially in the early phases will be a line of t-shirts aimed at the alternative youth, which I plan to produce myself.

    I am not an artist, my only tool is some abilty with photoshop, so I’ll be largely dependant on images obtained from the internet.

    I’m scanned far and wide across the net to try and gain information to better understand just what I can and can’t use with regard to images and ideas. The website will cater almost exclusively to the South African market where I am based, the domain a .com however, if that has any bearing or not I don’t know. I’m not even really sure which country’s laws I should be researching, or if its just really international law I should pay attention to.

    I am getting the impression that with regard to band merch, its okey to use their name and to refer to them, with or without an image, just so long as I don’t use any images, logos or designs used on any official band merch. Any comments on this?

    Also, in the case of designs or phrases already being used by other online t-shirt merchants in other parts of the world, (there doesn’t seem to be any real local competition) are their works under copyright protection? I don’t mean taking a design as is obviously, but I mean the concept. How different would my reproduction need to be for it to not be an infringement on any copyright or trademark? They can’t have copyright on the entire concept could they? I mean isn’t that just too broad?

    I know trademarks must be registered, what about copyright? Can people just claim copyright to something? Where is the line generally drawn here?

    I earlier mentioned use of names in band merch, so long as it not beig a copy of existing logos, etc. These names can also be registered as trademarks? Then I’m completely prohibited from using them?

    I would very sincerely appreciate any help anyone can offer me on this, however little.

    Thanks very much!

    Raoul Moolman

  2. Becky · February 26, 2009

    I’m wondering if i can silk screen famous people’s pictures onto t-shirts and sell them at my store. I take there pictures from google images and copy them onto microsoft word, then convert them to black and white so that i can use them as stencils.

    I would sincerely appreciate an answer to my question.

    Thank You


  3. Lanny · October 27, 2010

    I have a t-shirt that uses very funny artwork to work with a show tune title. Can it be protected?
    Thank you

  4. Conor · April 6, 2011

    It is copyright infringment if you use someone else’s work and sell it, only images that are in the public domain are free to use without permission. You can however use images as insperation aslong as you dont copy it outright. You can copy concepts or popular themes as long as you produce a unique piece of work at the end, any work you do produce automatically becomes your copyright by default.
    To Beckys question, no you cant use famous peoples images without permission, and besides often the images on the internet dont belong to the famous person but to the photographer/ newspaper etc. However famous mugshots are public domain and so can be used without permission.
    In saying all this it is very unlikly you would ever be brought to court over using an image unless your product became very famous and you made much money, like that Obama Hope poster when it became huge, a hunt was started to find the photo the artist used to make the poster, the image was found and the artist was sued.
    Remember design is not about being original its about hiding your sources lol…

  5. Kris · August 29, 2011

    I’m thinking of doing witty novelty tees with images and puns of characters from tv, movie and video games. as long as I dont copy someone else’s design from another t-shirt, can I use them as I see fit or would I have to worry about george lucas trying to sue me for making a chewbacca t-shirt?

  6. Joseph Shmoberg · February 9, 2012

    What about copyright/trademark for
    silkscreen screenshots of a t.v. show/movie?

    how much would have to be changed in order
    to make it an original art piece?

    thank you

  7. noelle · March 9, 2012

    I have humorous shirt sayings, the design is all text based.
    How I prevent someone else from using the phrases…or can I?
    Would a c copyright be worth putting on the shirt.

    With the online store we will be setting up,
    is there a phrase that tell people not to pirate?

  8. Alex · May 7, 2012

    Hey, so I have a very similar question as Becky had, but what if you are physically cutting out a stencil of a picture of a celeb,then putting that on tshirts. would it be the same issue needing the celebs permission? Or if I’m physically altering the picture would that change it into my own art that I could use to sell?

  9. Tiffany T · June 11, 2012

    I have came up with many T-Shirt slogans but they all consist of popular titles such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. can I copyright my work to start my own T-Shirt Design business? Your response will be greatly appreciated!

  10. Will C. · January 15, 2014

    I am wanting touse a phrase with the word/s Funsize on t-shirts. Does anyone know if it is copyrighted or if it can be used as long as it isn’t exactly like a trademark using the phrase. It will be text only, no images, or logos, etc.

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